How the Fab Four changed my life
As Beatlemania is about to explode all over again with the launch of
their remastered album CDs, Charles Spencer recalls growing up with
the iconic Sixties band.
by Charles Spencer
29 Aug 2009
I'll never forget that glorious moment of revelation. I had just
turned eight and was on the swings at the rec in Ripley, Surrey.
There was a group of teenagers nearby with a transistor radio and for
the first time I found myself consciously listening to pop music.
The song playing was the Beatles' From Me To You (April 1963) and as
soon as I heard the first notes I got off the swing and went and
stood as close to the teenagers as I dared, listening in a state of
wonder. I was hooked with my first hit. That Christmas my parents
bought me my first record player, a Dansette, and Aunty Kay gave me
my first LP, the Beatles's second album, With the Beatles. Bliss was
it in that dawn to be alive, but to be eight, and a fan of the Fab
Four was very heaven.
I saved my pocket money and bought every Beatles single as they came
out, though I couldn't usually afford the albums until Christmas or
birthdays came around. Every Thursday I would watch Top of the Pops.
I liked a lot of other groups too, notably The Kinks, The Who and The
Stones. But from eight to 13, with the release of the double White
album, The Beatles were undoubtedly my favourite band. Never a
football fan, I finally felt I had a team to follow.
And now Beatlemania is about to explode all over again. All the album
CDs have been carefully remastered and lovingly repackaged and on a
first listen to some of them, the sound has a freshness and depth
that helps revitalise songs you thought you had played to death.
Radio Two is devoting this weekend to the Fab Four and there are
movies about Lennon and Brian Epstein in the works. There's even a
Beatles video game coming out that could win them a new generation of fans.
Philip Larkin famously wrote that "Sexual intercourse began in 1963
... Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.
Well sexual intercourse certainly didn't begin for me in 1963 but
something changed when Beatlemania erupted in that annus mirabilis.
Until then, the Sixties had just seemed like an extension of the
drab, grey Fifties. With the arrival of the Beatles, Britain began to
start swinging and in the mind's eye of memory everything changed
from grainy black and white into glorious Technicolor.
One of the many extraordinary things about the Beatles is that they
seemed to appeal to everyone not just to the screaming teenage
girls whipping themselves into frenzies of unrequited passion, but to
pre-pubescent schoolboys like me, my mum and dad, and even my grandparents.
In a Britain that was still rigid with class and snobbery, the
mop-tops brought a refreshing blast of irreverent cheek and fresh air
into our lives. "For those of you in the cheap seats I'd like you to
clap your hands," John Lennon told the audience at a Royal Variety
Show attended by the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. "The rest of
you... just rattle your jewellery."
Unlike the Rolling Stones, the Beatles were hardly ever threatening.
Their early songs were about the innocence of young love. Never mind
going "all the way", John, Paul, George and Ringo seemed ecstatic at
the possibility of holding their girlfriend's hand. Indeed, right
through their work, they never really communicated sexual passion,
normally the bedrock of popular song. They were superbly tuneful,
quirky, melancholy, funny, and touching and in later years
thrillingly weird and spaced out. Unlike the Stones, there was no
throb of lust. When Paul McCartney sang "I want to do it in the road"
on the White Album the effect was downright embarrassing, a little
like watching your tipsy maiden aunt flashing her knickers at a
Unfortunately, their popularity meant that they never really had a
chance to prove themselves as a live band. Those who were lucky
enough to be there still speak with awe about their early
performances in Hamburg and the Cavern in Liverpool, but once
Beatlemania exploded they were more or less inaudible over the
screams and seemed happy to abandon live work in favour of working in
the studio with George Martin, who developed their talent with such
care, wisdom and tact.
What remains startling, even miraculous, is just how much ground they
covered between the release of Love Me Do in October 1962 and the
final single, The Long and Winding Road in 1970. They came up with a
dozen albums and a succession of superb singles that constantly took
their listeners by surprise with their melody, wit and freshness.
The Beatles' progress seemed to be a journey from innocence to
experience, and finally disillusion. Watching their bitter break-up
in 1970 was a bit like witnessing your parents go through an
acrimonious divorce. It left a nasty taste, particularly when John
lambasted Paul in the extraordinarily bitter How Do You Sleep?
Over the years we hoped they would bury the hatchet, reform, come up
with a new album and even perhaps return to the stage. The
speculation was endless, and intense, but the murder of John Lennon
outside the Dakota Building in New York in 1980 put an end to that,
while the more recent death from cancer of George Harrison was
another reminder of mortality, and of the truth of his beautiful song
All Things Must Pass.
Everyone always had their favourite Beatle, and mine was John,
because even in the polite early days there was something subversive
about him, and I loved his dangerous edge and haunting voice.
Although he was the superior melodist, Paul always seemed that little
bit too eager to please. George, with his brilliantly economical lead
guitar and some of the finest songs in the catalogue (Something;
While My Guitar Gently Weeps), has often been underrated. As for
Ringo, he was likeable and gave good quotes, but according to a
characteristically cruel jibe from Lennon, he wasn't even the best
drummer in the Beatles.
If I was forced to choose a favourite number I'd be torn between
Lennon's Help an apparently cheerful pop song that is actually a
cry of depressive distress -and his haunting Norwegian Wood on Rubber
Soul with its ethereal strangeness and Harrison's evocative sitar.
But what about Paul's beautiful Eleanor Rigby and She's Leaving Home,
songs of rare emotional depth and compassion, or A Day in the Life
that ends Sgt Pepper, in which Lennon and McCartney dramatically
welded two different songs into one unforgettable masterpiece?
Now, almost 40 years since they broke up, the Fab Four look set to
reclaim their position as the hottest property in pop music. The
Beatles are dead. Long live the Beatles!